Expand Your Academic Network in 5 Minutes

One of the many things that academics need to do but are seldom trained for in graduate school is networking. In order for you to be a successful scholar and to be a successfully employed academic, you need to get to know other people in your specific field and wider discipline. How to do this? Well, as ProfHackers have previously suggested you can attend conferences or use social media such as Twitter or Google Buzz. Today I’d like to suggest a cheaper and even faster way to build that network: write a thank-you note.

I have a particular type of thank-you note in mind. One of the other things that we are responsible for is reading the work of our fellow scholars. If you’re like me, you occasionally come across pieces that are especially striking, well written, groundbreaking, or help you reconceive how you had seen things. And sometimes it’s just a great essay/book and more enjoyable than many of the others you’ve recently read. When you hit those moments, I’d like to suggest that you track down the author and send her or him a note of appreciation.

We all know that the audience for academic publications is small, and one result of this is that you might never hear from anyone that has read something that may have taken you a better part of an academic year (or longer) to see into print. Writing to let them know that you enjoyed the piece is not only kind–something that we academics could spend some time working on in general–but also provides an opportunity to get to know someone new whose work is related to yours.

This might sound mercenary. And it is–in the sense that a commitment to writing is mercenary. And I don’t want to suggest that you should be sending form letters and blanket emails to everyone you ever read. It’s got to be honest, and you’ve got to realize that you might not get a response at all. But that shouldn’t stop you from sending the note anyway.

I started doing this in my first year of graduate study. I’ve sent notes to other grad students, to junior faculty, and to endowed chairs, and I always get a grateful response. Most often it hasn’t led to anything else, but in one case the person I wrote has become a mentor of sorts. When I had the opportunity to start a lecture/seminar series at Emory, I already knew the person that I could count on coming to speak even if I couldn’t secure an honorarium. And all it had taken me was 5 minutes to bang out an email about a book that changed how I saw an entire author’s corpus. Well worth the investment.

It of course bears mentioning that this hack isn’t only for graduate students or junior faculty. If you’re a senior scholar, just think how a kind word to a younger person in your field might make their day. Who knows, the new relationship might prove beneficial to you as well. You can certainly continue to learn from those entering the field.

Do you ever write thank-you notes in the academic setting? What effects have you seen from doing so?

cc licensed flickr photo by Romtomtom

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